Salman Rushdie was attacked in New York state last week before he was due to speak at an event. He was stabbed at least 10 times in the neck, face, and abdomen. At the time of writing, Rushdie is said to be in critical condition. But he has been taken off a ventilator and is able to talk again.
A number of prominent authors, as well as political leaders, have sent messages of support and solidarity to Rushdie. Some people have even chosen to support him by buying copies of his most famous work, The Satanic Verses.
But here’s the thing. Rushdie is most famous for protests from some Muslims in response to The Satanic Verses. Most people have heard about the fatwa against Rushdie from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in the 80s. For something that’s been discussed so much, there’s a lot that’s going unsaid.
Before we really get into that though, let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing in this article, stated or implied, which should be construed as support for the attack on Rushdie. It’s faintly ridiculous that I even have to clarify that I find the attack on his life abhorrent, but this is the world we live in.
However, the perspective that’s been missing in media coverage of the incident is that of Muslims who don’t have the privilege or platform that Rushdie does. It turns my stomach to see people recounting the Rushdie affair of the 80s as an example of fundamentalist Muslims unable to contain their innate violence. As so often happens with outpourings of solidarity, there’s more to the issue than meets the eye. The Satanic Verses was published before I was born, but I remember my family discussing what they thought of the book, Rushdie himself, and the protests.
Whichever way you slice it, Rushdie has become a symbol against Islam. The publication of the book took a well-known author into stratospheric heights of fame. Rushdie became synonymous with freedom of expression. Of course, 9/11 has morphed Islamophobia into the wide-reaching behemoth that we know it to be now. But, Rushdie’s contribution to a grand narrative of the “Islamic world” as a) homogenous, and b) innately violent is undeniable.
This point is difficult to explain, as so much of my understanding of his influence comes from growing up as a British Muslim. Instead, let me show what I mean by taking a look at commenters from the Guardian.
Limits of tolerance
Observer columnist Kenan Malik writes:
The Rushdie affair was a watershed in British political and cultural life, thrusting to the surface issues such as radical Islam, terrorism, the boundaries of free speech and the limits of tolerance.
But we need to show fellow humans more than ‘tolerance’. We owe more to one another than just putting up with the people around us. To speak of the limits of tolerance, then, is to speak of what cannot be tolerated.
For many Muslims, the Rushdie affair was yet another example that no matter how much you politely condemn violence against Rushdie himself, Muslims as a whole are still treated as barely tolerable. Muslims know full well how any criticism of Rushdie’s politics, without condoning violence, is not welcome in this discussion.
Malik outlines the thrust of his argument by saying:
It is in a plural society that free speech becomes particularly important. In such societies, it is both inevitable and, at times, important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. They are better openly resolved than suppressed in the name of “respect”.
In fact, it is a mischaracterisation of the Rushdie affair to say that it was about offended “sensibilities”. Muslims haven’t been given the grace of full and open discussions over what they thought about the book itself and about Rushdie’s politics. The discussion has been dominated by the insistence that it’s a free speech issue.
Malik’s analysis unnecessarily polarises a complex topic, mistaking this as an issue of “respect” rather than imbalanced rhetoric against Muslims without platforms.
Who’s being delicate?
Similarly to Malik, writer Jill Filipovic also mentions the “delicate sensibilities'” of Muslims. Of course, Jill doesn’t come out and mention Muslims. What she does say is:
Rushdie has not apologized for creating art that offended the delicate sensibilities of religious people who can’t seem to let God handle his own business.
Filipovic mentions conservative Christians in the US who attempt to ban books. And she makes the argument that the right to offend is important even when those being offended are religious. She says:
Religion is a belief system. If yours cannot stand up to criticism, interrogation, and even mockery or insult – if you need to threaten or punish, up to the point of death, those who insult an idea you hold dear – it is perhaps worth asking if your beliefs are as strong as you believe they are.
The thing is, conservative Christians merely believe themselves to be persecuted, while Muslims actually are. The problem with Malik and Filipovic’s arguments is that they make sense in isolation, but not in context.
Islamophobia is a punishing world order that has existed long before Rushdie or 9/11. It remains a centuries-long problem that Muslims are considered a homogenous group. It also remains a problem that Islamophobia doesn’t factor into analysis from liberal proponents of freedom of speech. The missing context here is that Rushdie and his supporters are so often punching down in their criticism of opposition to The Satanic Verses.
It’s deeply disingenuous to pretend as though Muslims haven’t had to sit and take criticisms of many aspects of Islam – repeatedly and consistently. We shouldn’t have to affirm Rushdie’s right to say as he pleases just to avoid being perceived as extreme, conservative Muslims opposed to freedom of speech.
Rushdie’s list of supporters is also telling. Margaret Atwood has written in support of Rushdie and implored the world to “stand by him“. When you’ve got the likes of Atwood, JK Rowling, and Stephen King supporting you, along with opinion pieces singing your praises in the Independent, CNN and Spectator, you clearly have the support of the establishment.
This discussion around freedom of speech is happening with symbolic stand-ins – Rushdie is in the West’s corner, as an ironic martyr of free expression. In the East’s corner, you have the easily offended, quickly triggered, and creeping mass of Muslims. Which Muslims? All of them? Some of them? The ‘extreme’ ones? Don’t worry about that, it’s just Muslims.
Enter transphobe Hadley Freeman. Describing a conversation with Rushdie himself, Freeman writes:
He [Rushdie] hates how the fatwa shaped perceptions of him as much as he resented how it shrank his life when he lived for a decade in hiding. “It destroys my individuality as a person and as a writer. I’m not a geopolitical entity. I’m someone writing in a room,” he said to me. And so, with great determination and courage, he retained his individuality by choosing freedom, with all the risks that entailed.
Rushdie has become a symbol. And, people like Freeman are determined to have him stay as such – whether he wants to or not. Freeman cites a 2005 speech Rushdie gave, called “Defend the Right to be Offended,” which does what it says on the tin. Freeman writes:
This is not a very fashionable argument now, when Rowling’s name is now considered analogous to Voldemort in progressive circles, and comedians such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle are physically attacked on stage because someone was offended by something they have said.
Name dropping JK Rowling is no accident either. Rowling happens to be a toxic leader of the debates on censorship. And silencing, cancelling, and censorship have become watchwords in the culture war being waged by mainstream commentators. Rushdie, the man, has been attacked. Rushdie, the symbol, has become a byword for resistance to censorship.
A typically incendiary lead-in from the Daily Mail brought these issues together:
Dear @DailyMailUK this is inciting hatred against the trans community, it is dangerous and irresponsible.
I'm actually shocked you dare do this, and not to put a name to it is even more telling. pic.twitter.com/BA1Kvyc1aP
— AndrewB72 he/him with added beard. (@andrew_b72) August 15, 2022
Frustratingly, Rushdie’s supporters often purposely bypass the Muslims caught up in this culture war. It’s convenient for establishment commentators to align “Islamist fundamentalists” with “trans right extremists”. But it begs the question that if you’re all for freedom of expression, then what’s the problem with Muslims expressing dissent non-violently? What’s the problem with trans people merely existing? What’s the problem with Muslim trans people, shock, horror, doing both?
Establishment figures would rather Muslims and trans people didn’t exist. The intersection of Islamophobia and transphobia throws up the sheer dominance of white supremacy and cis-gender norms. While Salman Rushdie undoubtedly deserves safety from persecution and physical attacks, that’s not the discussion here.
We need to be able to look at who the powerful are supporting, and why. Rushdie has come to symbolise freedom of expression. But, it’s simply not the case that this freedom of expression is available to all in equal measure. Muslims are, once again, caught in the crossfire, as all these commentators going on about “sensibilities” and the “limits of tolerance” sound like Prevent propaganda chewed up and spat out in the form of opinion columns in the Guardian.
I’m much more interested in looking at how power moves through this discussion. All of us are better off when writing is done not in the service of power, but in the service of people.
Featured image by Flickr/Alexander Baxevanis – via CC by 2.0, resized to 770×403
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